Editing's Dirty Little Tricks

Editors are dirty little tricksters.

Yes, we pull all sorts of illusions behind our viewers' backs. Some people might even say all editing is a "trick."
I define editing as the manipulation of audio and visual elements to tell a compelling story. If we accept that all editing is manipulation, what is "dirty" and what is not? The Ethics of Editing sounds like a great topic for another article, but let's concentrate on technique. More specifically, let's stick to Band-Aid-type fix-it solutions.

What Comes After A-Roll?

One of the most basic tricks (as well as a technique) and one we talk about often in these pages concerns B-roll - extra footage that is not part of the main action. I wonder if there is a project where I haven't used this trick? Shoot or request from your cameraperson as much B-roll as time allows: buildings, crowd shots, extreme closeups of interviewees' hands, mouth, eyes, etc. Get as much as you can to help bridge a cut in dialog or action, saving you from an unwanted jump-cut. This does not help only documentary storytellers. I remember waiting for the sun to rise on a shoot in Lima, Peru, early one morning, with a full moon about to duck under the horizon. I shot the moon for over five minutes, just because both it and I were there, and the director ended up using it as a main plot line.

Audible B-Roll

While we are talking of B-roll, we should mention room tone and wild sound. This is really more of a requirement than a trick, but a minute of natural sound from any set or location will be your absolute best friend when it comes to editing dialog or interviews. In the field, it might be good to grab some nat sound"' with cars driving by, if that is natural for the surrounding you're shooting in, but try to be conscious enough to grab some without recognizable audio intrusions as well. When collecting your room tone on set, make sure the set is the same as when you were shooting your main footage. All cast and crew members and set pieces should be present, as the tone can change if anything or anyone is missing.

Another trick is the nat sot tickle (nat sot is industry-speak for "natural sound on tape"). Bridge two pieces of differing voices by using a bit of nat sot almost like a cross-dissolve. Be subtle, maybe lowering the room tone or nat sound a number of decibels with a fade in and fade out, and your audio will be much less jerky or jarring.

What They Can't See Won't Hurt Them

This nat sound or room tone will help us with a trick used often when needing to fix a problem with dialog or even creating an entirely new scene completely in post. Record the actor's voice in a sound booth and then add nat sound or room tone from the set or location to match the field audio. To make this trick work best, rely on wide shots or scenes where the actor is not facing the camera. This way, the viewer does not know you have added the dialog after principal photography had wrapped. I remember a scene from a Hollywood movie where a person was walking and talking with a congressperson on the Mall in Washington, DC. The scene kept cutting away to an extremely wide shot because the editors were probably inserting dialog that may not have appeared in the script but became obviously necessary in editing. The wide shot included many of the national monuments on the Mall, but the viewer could not see the lips of either character.

This trick works for documentaries as well. For example, you may find that an interviewee's answer does not make sense without the question, but your crew did not mic the interviewer. As long as you have footage over the shoulder of the interviewer (e.g., back of the interviewer's head, so viewers are unable to see his/her lips), and in the same shot we can see the interviewee listening to the interviewer, you can add dialog that you created in post. Keep your ethics in mind, though.

More is Better

One last audio trick for you while we're here. If your audio is too low and you have manually raised the levels as high as they will go, but it's still not enough, what do you do? Some programs such as Apple's Final Cut Pro have an audio gain filter that could introduce sound noise, which you should keep in mind - but what if your program doesn't have an audio gain filter? You can try copying the audio and pasting it into a new audio track under the present audio tracks. Obviously, it has to be exactly in sync or you will get an echo, but this will in effect raise your audio. You can cut-and-paste as many times as you need, but keep in mind that it will also raise unfavorable sounds in your audio track.

Breaking the Rules

One mistake even experienced media producers make is with the 180-degree rule and/or with eyeline. This is a dire mistake, as it can really confuse your audience. For a simple example, imagine a woman talking to a man. In the two-shot, the woman is on the right of the screen, the man on the left. When the scene moves into an OTS (over the shoulder) behind the man, the woman is still on the right and the back of the man's head is on the left. Now, for some reason your cameraperson crosses the line and the man is on the right and the woman is on the left. Oops! A simple and quick solution is to flip the image in post. This unfortunately doesn't always work, as everything in the image is flipped. Viewers have an uncanny way of remembering that the lamp was on the left and the framed Picasso was on the right. Even worse is a store or traffic sign - or any wordage, for that matter. If the camera is locked down (on a tripod and not panning or tilting - in other words, not moving at all), you might be able to throw some natural-looking shadow on the reversed text on signs, or even insert a new sign made in Photoshop. But you'll have to get lucky to make it believable. Give it a try - I've pulled it off a couple of times.

Think Way Outside the Box

Extreme problems call for extreme solutions. Here are two examples. I spent over $1,000 shooting a 16mm film short only to find there was a light leak in the lens the entire time I shot. I put so much work into planning, casting, rehearsing, building sets and shooting only to find my footage completely "shot." I was very upset while looking at this footage, which had been converted to Mini DV, when a colleague in the edit bay with me said, "Looks kinda like a 1940s film." Eureka! I "down-converted" the footage to 18 frames per second, discolored it further, added some digital scratches, "digital hair in the gate" and "shutter jumps" and some old-looking opening and closing "boards" as titles. People were amazed with the "old look" I achieved.

The second example comes from one the projects done by my students. They plugged in the external shotgun mic as I had instructed but forgot to turn it on! They shot the whole day without capturing any audio. Most of the shots for this video were closeups, making automatic dialog replacement (ADR) very difficult. A quick brainstorm and they came up with the idea to ask one of their Japanese classmates to do the ADR, turning it into a poor dub, supposedly for Japanese audiences. Along with subtitles and some funny hidden messages in the Japanese dialog, the piece came out pretty well.